While planning for this issue of the paper, I offered to hit the streets for an up-close look at homelessness. I was not assigned this task, or required to do so. I came up with the idea and volunteered to do it. I give credit to Richard Sypher, who was a reporter for The News Tribune and covered city government in the late 1970s/early 1980s. He once told me about hitting the streets as a homeless guy during that era as research for an article he wrote.
I observe homelessness on a regular basis. I spend much time downtown for work-related duties, as well as social/recreational reasons, and I often see them there.
Anyone who lives or works downtown sees them. I interact with them around our office at 6th and Stevens. They generally are street alcoholics, driven to this part of town because malt liquor and rotgut wine are available in stores here, but not in Hilltop or downtown. A few are clearly mentally ill.
My concept was that I was newly homeless and unfamiliar with the social safety net. I imagined that I am a guy out of work, the unemployment checks have run out, the rent is past due and the landlord has evicted me.
I decided to carry a small amount of cash, my ORCA card to ride the bus, cell phone and transistor radio. To appear authentic, I did not shave for several weeks. I wore a decent pair of sneakers, but dirty jeans with rips in the knees, an old T-shirt and a ragged jacket that could provide warmth and some protection from rain. I considered carrying a weapon, but opted not to.
I was not out long enough to fully understand what it is like to be homeless, but I got a snapshot of it and am able to make some observations.
I knew there is something of a homeless circuit in town. I knew many of the locations, but not all of the details involving schedules.
I went to Nativity House, a drop-in center on Jefferson Avenue where the homeless gather during the daytime.
I saw people at tables and some on benches along a wall. I find a spot on a bench and take in the situation. Some people are drinking coffee. I find the coffee and cups and pour myself one. No sugar or creamer, have to drink it black. As they say, beggars cannot be choosers. I see rooms upstairs and go up to check them out. One is a small chapel, where people can have a quiet space to get spiritual. Another is an arts and crafts room, although they locked it up just before I have a chance to inspect it. I see artwork along the wall, signed Vic 2005. It is quite impressive. I assume it was created by a homeless man six years ago. Clearly some of the people on the streets are talented.
I was perplexed to discover one room is a smoking area. Indoors! People were in there smoking cigarettes. So…that cat who owns El Gaucho wanted a cigar lounge in his establishment, which was strongly opposed by Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department, to the point he had to cease operation of that room. Someone who can afford to eat an $80 steak at El Gaucho, then buy an $80 cigar is not allowed to smoke it inside El Gaucho, but homeless people can smoke a cigarette inside Nativity House?
A sign on the wall states when meals are served. At the designated time they begin serving, so I grab a chair at a table. I receive a bowl of soup, with many vegetables, two slices of bread with butter and a small serving of fresh vegetables. A good, healthy meal.
Tacoma has a city government very attuned to the problem of homelessness and is knowledgeable on ways to address it. I attended a meeting of Tacoma City Council’s Public Safety, Human Services and Education Committee. One of the topics on the agenda was homelessness prevention. How ironic. Staff informed council members of federal stimulus funding the city received to address homelessness. They wished to alter the amount allocated to two programs and explained why.
I slept under a bridge on Thursday night, in a part of town not associated with poverty. I thought I would have it to myself, but there was some other guy sleeping under a blanket there. Think there are no homeless people in your neighborhood? Think again. There probably are several, but they do not make themselves obvious enough for you to notice.
I headed back downtown on Friday. I walked up to St. Leo’s Catholic Church, where I know they offer meals to those down on their luck. I arrive and read a sign on the door informing me that it was closed for the day. I am beginning to realize there is a time schedule for homelessness.
I spent a few minutes at one popular gathering spot for the homeless – the main branch of Tacoma Public Library. There, they can be inside, out of the elements, with plenty of reading material to pass the time.
Next I go to the County/City Building and take a seat outside, where the homeless gather along Tacoma Avenue. Some people spread out blankets and catch some sunshine, as if they were in their own front yard.
By this point I have not eaten for around 24 hours. There are free meals to be had, but my timing is off. I take the light rail to the stop at South 25th and Pacific Avenue. I depart with several other men carrying backpacks. We all walk toward the same place – Tacoma Rescue Mission’s shelter on South Tacoma Way.
I walk inside and inquire about whether I could get a bed for the night. The man behind the counter gave me a look of exasperation. He informed me that sign-up time was 90 minutes ago. He said he would put my name on the list, but my chances did not look good. A man standing next to me is in the same situation and has his name added after mine.
There are several television sets in the room inside. All are tuned to the same local newscast. I catch up on the news for a few minutes. They are good sized, flat-screen TVs – much nicer than what I have in my living room.
I look about the material posted on the walls. Some have leads on jobs, including employers willing to hire convicted felons.
Another sign provides some basic information for those who wish to stay at the mission for an extended time. There are a number of rules, such as obtaining a steady source of income and saving a majority of it. Another involves working with a case manager to assist in finding permanent housing. Urine testing is part of the program, to steer people away from the temptation to use drugs.
Another sign states that curfew is at 8 p.m., except for certain circumstances. These including working, attending church services or support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. In all such circumstances, the person staying at the mission must return with paperwork proving where they were, signed by a boss or preacher.
I head out to the courtyard, where perhaps 60 people are gathered. Some guys on Harley-Davidsons appear. The patches on their vests and jackets identify them as members of a Christian motorcyclist group. They set up tables, on which they put boxes of clothes to distribute. They also have coffee, with cream and sugar even.
Across the courtyard a woman with her young daughters set up tables. I stand in line. The mom hands me a cookie and a little girl hands me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I gratefully accept. These are the first things I have eaten all day.
It appears I am not getting a room for the night. It is a Friday night and I can think of other things I would rather do than be homeless. I catch a bus out of downtown and end my adventure on the streets of Tacoma.
SOME DISTURBING FINDINGS
The most distressing thing about my experience was observing homeless children. I knew there are moms with kids out on the streets, but actually seeing it was sad. I saw one woman with a baby while hanging out at Nativity House. I saw several women and kids in the courtyard at the mission.
One woman in her 30s pushed a stroller with a 2-year-old girl in circles around the statue in the courtyard. The mom had a shell-shocked look on her face. The girl did also. I assumed homeless women with kids had some other place they went for shelter. Seeing that little girl surrounded by that cast of characters was a shock. I would think we could do better in the wealthiest nation on earth.
The thing that frustrated me the most was all of the healthy, able-bodied young men I observed sitting around doing nothing, waiting for a handout – playing cards, dominoes, shooting the breeze, smoking cigarettes. Maybe the economy is so bad there is not enough jobs for them, but there certainly are things they could do, like pick up trash along the side of the road, paint over graffiti on walls, or dig up dandelions from the grass in parks and schools. Some of the guys I observed were physically unfit or mentally ill. I have a bit more sympathy for them. But these young guys? I think there should be a correlation between productive activity and assistance. On a bitter, cold winter day I could see letting them sit around playing cards inside. But on a warm day in June? If they want that sandwich or bowl of soup, they should have to go out in the community and do some chores. And if they do not like that offer, maybe they can hitchhike to Spokane or Portland and be homeless there.
My situation on the evening of June 4 warrants a few words. Consider it a prologue to my excursion. I was a customer in an establishment in the North End. Two other people were there – a male customer and a female employee. A man I have never seen comes in. The young woman on duty asked me if I could stick around for a while because this new guy scares her.
I could see why. I recognized him as mentally ill immediately. I am sure he was homeless and crashing outside in the vicinity. He was acting quite odd and was somewhat agitated. We coax him into leaving. He wanders around in the street and soon is accosting patrons heading in and out of nearby businesses, clearly scaring one woman.
The employee calls 911. Eventually two squad cars arrives. The officers speak to this man, put him in the back seat and drive away.
This situation verifies something I have long known – our system for dealing with the mentally ill in this society leaves much to be desired. It is a complex problem with no simple solution. This scene reveals that the homeless are not relegated to some downtown skid row or a wooded area by the railroad tracks or the freeway. They are scattered around the city, even in the “nice” neighborhoods.